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Awaiting an Ace: The Return of Alex Cobb

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Alex Cobb pitching in 2015
Alex Cobb pitching in 2015
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2015 season, the Rays were looking good on the pitching side, with arguably the best rotation in the American League. The top of the rotation was lead by emerging ace Alex Cobb.

Unfortunately, a plague of injuries caught up to the Rays in a big way and the staff ace required Tommy John surgery in May 2015.

Cobb's rehab has been successful, most recently playing catch at 120 feet and is scheduled to start throwing off the mound as soon as late March 2016. If all goes well, we could see Cobb back as soon as late July -- right after the All Star Break -- giving a boost to the Rays rotation.

And we should be glad it will be fore the Rays.

Trade Interest

Although Alex Cobb was in the middle of his rehab this past off-season, there was an abnormal amount of  interest in the injured ace. The Cubs were the main interested party, and a deal was being worked on, but the Cubs were unwilling to give up one of either Jorge Soler or Javier Baez in some capacity. As a result, the Rays pulled out, and a deal was put on hold.

Previously: Mapping out a Cubs trade for Alex Cobb

Even though a trade was not struck at the moment, that does not mean it won't happen. Teams could get desperate and teams could give in to asking prices.

An injured pitcher coming back from TJS usually isn't that appealing, but if Cobb can prove he is healthy and back to ace form, I am sure the Rays will be getting a lot of enticing offers in the 2016-2017 off-season.

Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Back

A trade not working out might be a blessing in disguise because now we can look forward to Cobb returning to the Rays rotation and/or bullpen. Lets take a look back at Cobb's 2014 and see what made him so special:

Alex Cobb Games Innings K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2014 27 166.1 8.06 2.54 2.87 3.23 3.33 2.8
Career 81 498.2 7.69 2.76 3.21 3.43 3.36 8.3

The last full year of data we have to look at is 2014, where Alex Cobb emerged and confirmed his status as an ace. A first reaction of concern that his ERA outperformed his FIP and xFIP, however he outperformed the same stats in 2013 as well.

This is due to his heavy use of his splitter-changeup (nicknamed "The Thing") and his sinker, which resulted in a 56.2% ground ball rate in 2014 for the Ray's defense to scoop up. Since 2013, Cobb has all but ditched his four seam fastball in favor of his sinker, and utilized The Thing just as much as well.

Looking Forward

Although Cobb was sorely  missed in 2015, we get look forward towards his return in 2016. Lets take a look at some of his projections for the upcoming season.

Alex Cobb Games Innings K/9 BB/9 BABIP ERA FIP WAR
Steamer 10 58.0 7.75 2.75 .294 3.48 3.58 1.0
ZiPS 21 128.3 7.78 2.88 .299 3.44 3.62 2.1
PECOTA 5 26.0 8.65* 2.76* .295 3.39 N/A 0.3

*K/9 and BB/9 were calculated using PECOTA's provided strikeout, walks and innings pitched. Formula is: (K/IP)*9

Overall I think it is exciting to see three different projection systems say Cobb will post a sub-3.50 ERA and strikeouts and walk rates in line with his career numbers.

Dan Zzymborski and the ZiPS projection system  take into account injury history, however the system assumes the player is starting the year healthy, which explains the high number of innings and games projected for Cobb in 2016.

Steamer and ZiPS are both pretty darn close when it comes to both strikeout and walk rates, as well as BABIP and ERA. But ZiPS thinks Alex Cobb will be worth much more to the team in 2016, posting a full WAR value higher than Steamer.

PECOTA is not confident that Cobb will be a huge impact on the Rays, only postinga 0.3 WAR. It does believe that Cobb will come out dealing, with high strikeout numbers and a low ERA.

Concluding Thoughts

Alex Cobb was an absolute ace, and one that will be a welcome sight for many Rays fans come late July or early August.

As long as both the Rays and Cobb conduct a successful rehab, and no complications or major setback occur, Cobb should contribute immediately to the Rays' pitching staff. His return will push someone like Erasmo Ramirez to the pen to give Kevin Cash and the Rays a nice depth piece to the bullpen.

No matter which way you look at it, the return of Alex Cobb is something we can all look forward to.